A Rant Concerning the Function of Art: Answers or/and Questions

We’ve all heard someone say “Art asks more questions than it answers.” This statement suggests a categorization of art into either High Art or low art. Although there are many reductive ways to categorize art, I find it useful to categorize according to the function of either questioning or answering, but this use is not about dismissal. To clarify, I’m using “answers” to mean reinforcement of established values and “questions” to mean rejection or examination.

Some Super-Generalized Art History

Despite the common view that art is about asking question and not giving answers, art as “question” is a recent idea. Even in the late 19th century, art was about providing answers. Representation of people, places, or stories (religious, mythic, or historical) was about meaning, as if to remind the audience. “Life is meaningful,” these works suggested, “because of [religion, or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or natural beauty, or people].”

Art as a statement of meaning is most apparent in religious works. Whether it’s Christ’s deposition from the cross or the virgin and child, these works remind their audience that Christianity, not the things of the secular world, is the route to heaven. It may ask the audience to reevaluate their lives, but the work supplies the answer to its own question.

The purpose of art changed gradually. The romantics explored new subject matter, introducing doubt to basic assumptions. Their historical works focused on the ugly, irrational, yet passionate moments. Irrational passion became a new answer in some romantic works. But other, less certain works of this movement turned the answer into a question. “Why,” some of these works ask, “do humans act this way?”

Several decades later, impressionists changed the method by which they gave answers in their works, creating new techniques a style. The expressionists, who followed, turned to the inner, emotional world for their subjects, making the “answers” personal. Their works are harder to generalize. An expressionist work may say “I feel [x]” instead of “life is important because [x]” and many continue to imply “why?”

After expressionism, art explodes. Art starts questioning assumptions about race, politics, religion, economics. Art starts questioning assumptions about art! It is all very complicated and impossible to generalize in the way I generalized art prior to the 20th century. The greater trend still holds, however. It is from the gradual acceptance of early 20th century art that many of us now say “art asks more questions than it answers.”

The Problem with Answers

There are some good reasons for rejecting answers. Mainstream art is about answering, whether the creator knows it or not. The unaware creator unwittingly imbeds cultural values (good and bad) into their work. When the creator is aware of imbedding these values in the answers their work provides, they are creating propaganda. Even when a creator means well and is aware of their assumptions, answers often come across condescending, pedantic, and moralizing. Answers, at their worst, are Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Consider recent films as an example: Michael Bay does not have a political agenda with Transformers any more than Christopher Nolan does with Batman, yet their films are still works of art that answer instead of questioning. Their audience leaves the theater with their values reaffirmed. Again, the directors don’t intend to participate in any negotiation of cultural values; their intent is (at best) to make an exciting film or (at worst) to make money. Works that question are usually difficult.

(Side note: most pop-intellectual films such as Inception, A Beautiful Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are still about answers and not questions. They either resolve their challenge—thus resolving the tension the audience feels—by the end of the film, or the challenge was never that complicated to begin with.)

But art is a product of the times. Romanticism followed the French Revolution and the failure of the enlightenment. Impressionism and expressionism followed the industrial revolution and urbanization. The many branches of modernism followed World War I. Since then there were the 50s and 60s and 70s. Answers seem empty in that world of the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, the Cold War, etc. So instead of answering, art questioned, and through these questions, art exposed hypocrisy.

(Disclaimer: of course, as with the works of realists and naturalists in the 19th century, the mainstream art of the 20th and 21st century still fulfills the role of answering instead of questioning. It is incorrect to view this story of art as its only story. History is and always has been complicated.)

The Problem with Questions

The problem with questions is that, although they are effective at dismantling, they are not effective at replacing. Questions, when effective, create a void by displacing answers. Without a replacement, this void spells nihilism and cynicism. This may be clearer by analogy. Sometimes when walking up a staircase I become conscious of the act of walking up the staircase. The act that was automatic becomes manual and clumsy. If I cannot return to the automatic mode, then I might even stumble. Art that questions has a similar effect on assumptions. If I cannot find a substitute answer after displacing the first, then I feel uncomfortable.

So, if art that answers leads to propaganda, and art that questions leads to nihilism, what do we, who are attempting to make art, do?

Two Options

One option is to not worry about it. So long as there is some balance of works of art that question and others that answer, then we can avoid the negative effect of both. The problem with this option is that audiences will form that only engage with works of one type. This also encourages a cultural divide, which we see in the original assumption about art, and the implied division between “high” and “low.”

The option I prefer is to question and answer within the same work. In order for this route to succeed, the answer must be specific to its question and its context. If the answer is too big or too small for the question, then the work faces the same problems. For example, It’s A Wonderful Life poses a question about capitalism, but then answers it with “the love of family and friends (plus the help of god) conquers all!” By the end, the film does more to reaffirm mainstream American values than it does to examine them. Kurosawa’s Ikiru is more successful, although still somewhat saccharine. The protagonist, who is facing death, tries to find meaning in his remaining days, attempting one answer after another. For him, family and friends are inadequate answers, as is the pursuit of pleasure. The film’s answer is specific to that protagonist and his context. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is even more successful with this question because its answer is grounded in the context of the film. The film’s answer to the question belongs to its protagonist; it is not a universal answer.

(Edit: A third option is for a work to pose multiple answers to the questions it asks. The purpose of the work is then to evaluate the merit of each answer. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal does this with each character representing a different philosophy, and each handling their mortality in different ways. Blow’s Braid also does this, by moving between subjective and objective, artistic and scientific meaning. By exploring multiple answers, works avoid the annoying, moralizing, condescending tone of a single, simple answer.)

So, what about games?


I’m not sure, but I think the ability to apply this thinking to games depends on the genre. The more the game relies on systems, the harder it is for an author to pose simple answers. (Side note: I know people have mocked the way we categorize games according to mechanics instead of subject—rts and fps instead of rom-com and action—but I think it’s more valuable to think of each game “genre” as its own medium. All of the genres of books and movies can exist within each game “genre.”)

Games that focus on systems or simulation inherently allow the player to ask “what if” questions and see how the game answers. These systems are authored, so it is possible for these answers to be incorrect models of reality, intentionally or not. Systems and simulation can be ironic, so long as they are internally consistent. Prison Architect, Theme Hospital, and Sim City all provide answers to their player’s “what if” questions, but what questions they encourage depends on the game, and also on the player. “Objectivity” and “neutrality” are genre conventions of simulations, but as with mainstream film, choosing not to negotiate cultural values is still a form of participation.

At first it seems that interactivity would prevent the author from posing simple answers. Then again, gameplay is capable of saying “love conquers all” or other oversimplified statements. And games are more than gameplay. The non-interactive and the interactive are intermingled. The player may be able to blow up the red barrel, but it is (was) still a red barrel. The player may be able to subvert Grand Theft Auto by obeying traffic laws, but the player is still incapable of starting a punk rock band and posting fliers on telephone poles around town.

That’s all for this rant. If you have any thoughts, agree or disagree, let me know in the comments, or feel free to send me an email. Thanks for reading.

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